Directed by my top 10 favorite director of all time, Hou Hsiao-hsien (Café Lumiere, Millenium Mambo) comes the story of a coterie of high class Chinese call girls, as it were. So lavish their appointments, so recalcitrant their demeanor that the entire film is devoted, chamber piece-style, to the incidental material possessions they collect, the opium they smoke, and the dreams each girl has stowed safe and protected to getting out of bondage. Sold to “Aunties” at the ages of 7 or 8, these “Flower Girls” are basically servant/slaves to the house. Lavishly appointed in silk brocades, combs, hair ribbons and tiny shoes fit for their bound feet, they shuffle from call to call, from room to room as rich, self important men demand their services and presence while they play pointlessly absurd drinking games. With names such as Emerald, Jasmin, Jade, Pearl and Silver Dragon, the audience becomes even more aware of the girls transient status as material objects of men. Behind the tightly painted faces and faux happy demeanor lie intensely insecure women, obsessively worried about their status (rightly so) and either focused on marriage to one of their clients as lower wives, or towards buying their own freedom and setting up shop as their own “Auntie”.
Integral to this zeitgeist of opium infused smoking parlors are the men. Ho-hum in wine and other spirits they prattle on, giving the appearance of Lord’s of the manor, each one a cloud of golden silk and a long braid, a mist of Flower Girls following his every move and in case he should lose a drinking game, drinking his punishment for him. Surprisingly to me, some of these men do in fact take the most beautiful of the Flower Girls as second or third wives. A veritable slap to the face, some enter into suicide pacts with the love stricken men, to avoid the shame of not being the #1 wife.
Hsiao-hsien creates the most formal of period pieces and if less successful in terms of emotional involvement for the audience (I was forever confusing myself with who was Diamond, who was Torquise, who was Pearl and for 70% of the time I didn’t care) it was highly successful in terms of art direction and dialogue. Rich. Sumptuous. Resplendent. For all we knew the Emperor himself visited these brothels, so finely laid were there apartments.
So what if everyone was walking around smoking opium like they were doing bong hits, perhaps that was the only way these beautiful women could deal with the insidious gossip, infighting and strong arm back handed techniques of the grand masters themselves, the “Aunties”. Each Auntie shrewdly dealt with the upstart of a rebellion or coup de tat – a succession of a state. When Emerald saves enough money to buy her freedom, her Auntie finagles a way to make her pay a couple of grand more, for her own escape. As Emerald sells off almost every single piece of jewelry she has, like a proud peacock shrugs off the vestiges of the strong-hold relationship that kept her in bondage for over a decade.